South African multimillionaire Mark Shuttleworth became the world's second space tourist Thursday when he, a Russian cosmonaut and an Italian pilot blasted into space aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket. The three will travel to the International Space Station before returning to earth after their 10-day mission.
The Soyuz rocket lifted off on schedule from launch pad number one at Russia's Baikonur base in Kazakhstan. Aboard was the ship's commander, veteran cosmonaut Yuri Gidzenko, Italian Air Force pilot Roberto Vittori and South African Internet entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth. The 28-year-old multimillionaire had trained for eight months and spent a reported $20 million to fulfill his childhood dream of going into space. Members of his family had flown to Kazahkstan for the occasion, and they reportedly watched the launch with big smiles and tears of joy.
The Soyuz rocket reached its orbit about eight minutes after liftoff and a spokeswoman for mission control said the crew was feeling fine.
The Soyuz will fly to the International Space Station, where it is expected to dock on Saturday. The crew's main mission is to deliver a new Soyuz capsule to be kept at the space station for use as an escape vehicle if needed. Mark Shuttleworth is also to conduct experiments on how animal stem cells react in zero gravity.
The space tourist's trip has been warmly welcomed in South Africa, where his adventure has received blanket media coverage. He is the first African to go into space and has been dubbed the "Afronaut" by many back home, including Nelson Mandela.
While Mr. Shuttleworth's space journey has received a lot of attention, it has attracted none of the controversy that surrounded the launch of the first space tourist, American businessman Dennis Tito.
The U.S. space agency NASA had strongly objected to Mr. Tito's trip into space aboard a Russian rocket last year, fearing an amateur would endanger himself, the spaceship crew and the entire mission. But the Tito flight went off without a hitch, paving the way for further space tourists.
Russia initiated the space tourism idea, seeing it as a way to bring badly needed cash into its ailing space program.